A Guernica of our time

Hope not, but the historical parallel between the germinal civil war in the desert of Libya and the attack on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War is beginning to seem eerily more relevant every day.

It’s true that  Gaddafi has used his own planes so far to strafe his own people unlike Franco who had to seek the support of his German and Italian allies, and the Nazi Luftwaffe obliged by reducing the Basque market town to rubble. Gaddafi’s  well-equipped and modern air force is more than a match for the hapless rebels. But Gaddafi was compelled  to bring in foreign mercenaries to help in the ground war. The balance of power there is not so  one-sided; nonetheless, the parallel is obvious.

Invoking the bogey of Al Quaeda is not new; this could be a genuine concern (the reason why the west supported and enriched Gaddafi at first) or a clever ploy. Neither is  the conspiracy theory that the colonialists and other countries in the west, in cohort with terrorists, are set on  attacking Libya to seize the oil wells; hence Gaddafi’s war on his own people whom he accuses of treason. There’s an uncanny similarity with Franco’s attempt to hide the truth about the tragedies of Guernica by spreading the lie about the retreating “Reds” burning and razing the Basque cities to the ground ahead of the advancing Nationalists.

Franco’s long campaign of lies somehow didn’t succeed. Yet, in spite of all that, in spite of the universal condemnation, in spite of Picasso’s silent  j’accuse so eloquent in the eponymous  painting,  Franco ruled for about thirty odd years after Guernica, and long after the other fascists fell. Hope the historical parallel doesn’t extend that far.

Gaddafi’s Libya is not Guernica yet. Guernica lite perhaps?

Halal Democracy : an oxymoron?

…or just a  politically correct smart sound bite in the wake of the recent upheaval in the middle east? It is certainly not without any traditional or historical rationale, and has appeared in respected media like the New York Times. The obvious implication is that democracy and Islam are not compatible and the recent popular youth uprising in the middle east can only be a rare exception to the rule. Theocracy rules, ok? Or, is it plutocracy? Oligocracy?  Autocracy? So many labels!

So easy to “profile”, to categorize, to miss the salient point that none of the labels would fit, that the default Islam does not apply in Tunis or Cairo any more than Christianity in a comparable situation in most western cities, or Buddhism in the old South Vietnam. So, looking for an easy label we tend to lump Tunis, Cairo, Amman with Iran, Iraq or Gaza.

But what about  democracy? Don’t forget that the much-vaunted democracy in Athens unfairly put Socrates to death? Or a few centuries later the Gracchi brothers in the heydays of ancient Rome were killed because of their campaign for popular democracy – still the  most relevant to us in today’s world!.  Or the idea of Plato’s philosopher-kings in an “ideal” meritocracy? Did it die when Plato himself was  reportedly sold as a slave by the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse?

The idea of Democracy as rule of the people, or government by power derived from people, somehow crumbles when you dig deeper or when you are excluded or marginalized from we the people in case you happen to be a slave or an otherwise unrecognized citizen. Of course, the antecedent of our constitution, the Magna Carta of England deals only  with the knights, the clergy and the landed gentry, leaving out the common people. The recent protesters from Cairo or Tunis have clearly gone beyond that in asking for basic necessities of life and freedom  for the common man irrespective of  religious or political alignment – at least now! May be Halal democracy will rule, ok?

But who cares? We need headline recognition and catchy sound bites, right? Don’t know why but somehow the expression Halal democracy sounds outright derisory or   patronizing at best. Yet, Kosher democracy sounds respectable and worthy in comparison!

So how about Yellow Democracy, Chopstick democracy, or even Curry Democracy? Any idea?

Apocalypse 2012 Redux

This is 2011 already  and  for all we know the world may end before the end of 2012, as presaged by increasingly frequent reports of earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods and other global catastrophes from Haiti, Chile, the Gulf of Mexico to Russia, Pakistan, Australia and beyond.

All this was  predicted by some ancient mystics and many modern day internet hustlers and travel agents! Yet there’s one magical place long believed to be fated to escape this Apocalypse. So business is booming,  the blogsphere is abuzz and an obscure village in France is about to be overwhelmed by the invading horde of pilgrims, new age survivalists, ‘esoteric’ fanatics, and just curious tourists.

But, what about you? What have you done? Are you ready and prepared for the doomsday? If not, take the mystery out of the secret with the 2012 Secrets Exposed, and get your 2012 Survival Guide before it’s too late. Not sure? Check out an old blogpost here,  to make sense of all these and get a more detailed purview.

The doomsday scenario is nothing new, and can be traced back to many religious    beliefs and folklore from the ancient Mayan, Babylonians, Hindus or even the Hopi Indians, spanning several millennia.

What is new now is a different perspective based on recorded history, church records and local folklore. Also new is the power of internet chat rooms, forums and social media sites to generate and spread rumors, gossips, supposed  exposé  of secret and sacred topics and even serious research.

The buzz is about a mysterious, impressive and sacred mountain, often called the Magic mountain. Pech de  Thauze, better known now as Bugarach, the village at the foothill of the mountain of Bugarach  has featured in countless legends and myths.  From  Nostradamus and Jules Vernes  to George Sand, André Malraux, to Dan Brown and recent science fiction enthusiasts and film makers it had fascinated, inspired and haunted many people. Even General Moshe Dayan of Israel was rumored  to have been personally interested in Daniel Bettex’s work (cf. below).

It was venerated by the Cathars who built many castles and chateaux around the valley.The survivors of the ancient Atlantis are believed to have settled under the mountain, their advanced and purer civilization supposedly evinced by the subterranean network of lakes, caves, and mines.  There are believed to be secret getaways to the “other world” under the mountain, which has been claimed by some to be the actual Mountain of God, hiding the Ark of the Covenant inside the mountain.

The Ark of the Covenant has been a recurrent theme in many real and mythical accounts, most notably by Daniel Bettex. The real life adventures and studies by this Swiss researcher and spelunker, and his mysterious death, are intertwined with the Bugarach mountain. Bettex undertook his search and research on behalf of the French Society of Cathar Research, keeping in constant touch with  the Society’s secretary-general Lucienne Julien , whose painstaking recordkeeping remains the official research report. In addition, Bettex took many sketches and photographs in the belly of the mountain, some of the pictures showing several stone structures inside the cavity. These stones carried graffiti, some of which looked like  drawings of a coffer and a stretcher, with an uncanny resemblance to a typical Ark carried on a stretcher. Did this signify the Ark of the Covenant? If so, was the Bugarch Mountain the resting place of the Ark?
The normally taciturn Bettex didn’t disclose much about the progress of his research, until a few days before his death. He was reported to have been very excited with his discovery and about to reveal his findings.  There are many versions and accounts of his mysterious death; but they all suggest that his remains and the venue  of his research were buried by a collapsed mine and promptly sealed with concrete; what a vivid meaning to the word “cover up”?
There were rumors that General Moshe Dayan warned Bettex against touching the Ark of Covenant  – probably as far fetched as the earlier reported interest by Himmler and the Nazi party about the magic mountain.
For serious study on the subject,  there’s a confusingly abundant trove of valuable data on the web., notable among them being  the Société Perillos and the Bibliotecapleyades websites.

But the real “magic” of the magic mountain is genuine science fiction. The mountain is  supposed to have an unusually strong magnetic field, so that no airplane would ever fly over the peak. The only safe operators would probably be Alien spaceships and UFOs that have always existed in local (and even not so local) imagination and folklore.
But this is contradicted by yet another rumor: Georges Pompidou once flew in a secret helicopter flight over the peak of Bugarch?

We’ll probably never know the truth!

Classical Music : the Jewish Counterpoint

The playlist of a New York public radio station included a special holy day service on the eve of Yom Kippur 2010, featuring the Kol Nidrei of Max Bruch. This is unremarkable, except for the fact that Max Bruch is not even Jewish although many people mistakenly assume so.

In addition, Bruch’s  work is scored for solo cello and orchestra – which should immediately disqualify it as a truly Jewish Religious work according to musical purists and orthodox rabbinic authorities; traditionally, instrumental music has been banned from synagogues since the destruction of the second temple by the Romans around AD70 (the shofar or the ram’s horn, being the only survivor, but used only for ceremonial announcements). With the advent of the Reform Judaism movement, the rules have been relaxed a lot over the last two centuries, and nobody would today begrudge Bruch his success in popularizing a piece of Jewish music.

The counterpoint of Jewish and traditional classical music in fact goes back to the 15th-16th century Italian Renaissance when Salamone Rossi Hebrero flourished in the liberal spirit of the enlightened duchy of Mantua. Rossi composed both in the prevailing classical idiom as well as in the settings of the polyphonic synagogue liturgy – he was probably the first Jewish composer to do so. Rossi was also daring and  proud of his Jewish heritage (hence he appended to his name the word “Hebrero” – thus, Salamone Rossi the Jew!)

This spirit of enlightened counterpoint was somehow lost in the subsequent centuries, partly due to the assimilation and conformity prompted by the bigotry and anti-semitism of that time, and partly also because of the ideal of the Haskalah Reform  movement. Thus, Felix Mendelssohn (the grandson of the great Jewish scholar and Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) wrote hardly any “jewish” work, apart from Elijah which, although based on Jewish theme is in the baroque tradition of Bach and Handel.  The highly popular Jacques Offenbach, whose father was a great Cantor as well as a  writer of several works including a well known  Haggadah, never bothered with Jewish music.

Ernest Bloch,  perhaps more than any other Jewish composer of the last century embodies the ideal of Rossi so admirably. His Schelomo is arguably as popular as Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and his Avodath Hakodesh is regarded by many as a supreme achievement in this genre. Arnold Schoenberg also composed a Kol Nidrei as well as the unfinished opera Moses und Aaron. In our time, Leonard Bernstein has followed Rossi and composed many Jewish or Jewish-themed works (e.g. the Jeremiah and the Kaddish symphonies) along  with his Mass and other Catholic religious works.

This cultural osmosis in music works either way. Both Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote Jewish music, the latter even having a popular success with his  Overture on Hebrew Themes.  And conversely, it was a Jewish composer who composed perhaps the most enduringly popular Christmas song : ‘I am dreaming of a white christmas’.

Yet the saddest irony for a Jewish composer must surely concern  Gustav Mahler,  whose Resurrection symphony is considered by many including yours truly to  be almost as sublime and moving  as  the St Matthew Passion or the Missa Solemnis. Yet he avoided music with overtly Jewish association. This, in view of the virulent anti-semitism of the musical establishment of Germany and Austria ruled by Cosima Wagner et al, is an understandable survival strategy, as was his conversion to Catholicism, although in reality he never forsook his Jewish psyche. Understandable but sad nonetheless.

As somebody once said, Nationalism in music is fine if you have a Nation but what if, like these classical Jewish musicians,  you don’t?

Hi Tech is cool but is it Hi Fi?

If you ask a true audiophile – the ever-dwindling minority lost among the babel of hypes and sales pitch – the answer would be a resounding NO. With the advent of the internet age, when  the buzzword  is ‘digital’ and the musical yardsticks are bandwidth or download speed, it’s easy to lose touch with reality, and confuse ease and convenience with quality and fidelity to the original. This is especially true of musical experience and the evolving tradition of music reproduction.

But what is reality, or the so-called original? Even in a modern live concert there are parameters like microphone configurations and acoustics that dictate use of speakers and other tweaks. It’s nothing at all like the ‘natural’ sound of the outdoors, an impromptu folk song, or even the open air sounds and the street singers in any modern city. For music recording though some compromise is unavoidable,  so that even in a small intimate nightclub setting you’ll find  close miking, amplifiers and speakers. Yet for centuries, western and orthodox  musical tradition of a capella music, for example, relied successfully on the ambient acoustics of the venue to enhance sound dispersion and musical fidelity.

High fidelity or Hi Fi has a fanatic following of audiophiles, music lovers. enthusiasts and high end audio engineers who go to extremes in pursuit of this mecca of ideal musical recreation. From all the rumblings in the mass market media in this ‘digital’ world you would think that the old long playing record player is dead, let alone the older mono or even the 78 rpm players. Nothing could be farther than the truth.  In fact, I know of some true devotees of these old vinyls for whom the surface imperfections are a small price to pay in order to preserve  the irreplaceable music in its original recording format, and these are not old sentimental folks, but young, intelligent, and computer-savvy over-achievers who just happen to care more about the music than the medium!

Don’t get me wrong. Digital gadgets are cool, easy to use and quite often look gorgeous and impressive. Digital recording and reproduction can and indeed do   eliminate some noise and superficial distortions and even coloration. Yet the earlier claims of fantastic dynamic range and perfect frequency response have proved  to be plainly fallacious. What’s more, after the hoop-la has subsided  more and more music lovers are finding the sound cold and unmusical. Some has even wondered : isn’t this like drinking distilled water when you’re thirsty?
Wait, now some hi tech gurus have now countered this by introducing artificial  reverberations,  echos and coloration in order to recreate the ambience. Does  this not bring to mind  the processed foods in the supermarket aisles  all claiming to be ‘100% natural’?

Music, indeed any sound, cannot exist in vacuum but being longitudinal waves needs a continuous compressible medium, in our world the atmospheric air, to propagate i.e. be heard. To be  clearly heard though  the sound waves need space or air  proportional to the wave length, which for a low note on bass or piano could be about 7 ft or longer. How can that be experienced from the output of an iPod or mp3 player, even when tethered to a so-called compact amplifier-speaker combo?

That is the whole point of fidelity in music reproduction. You don’t even have to delve into high end audio to be within sight of this hi-fi mecca. This is a  complex subject. The topic  of hi-fi turntables, amplifiers and speakers belongs to a rather exclusive niche, and really deserves a separate future post to expound. Stay connected.

Fibromyalgia : is it all in the head?

No. In fact, it’s all over the body and then some! For someone suffering from fibromyalgia this glib cynicism can only add mental stress and stigma  to the  already debilitating physical pain; It’s certainly  not funny!

Yet this is not confined to ignorant outsiders only; until recently even some doctors, failing to correctly diagnose fibromyalgia symptoms, used to dismiss their patients’ complaints, perhaps not exactly in the  same words, but often couched in highfalutin medical jargon. Fibromyalgia was not even acknowledged  as a real disease, and there were no effective or approved drugs for treatment  of  the condition.

Things have changed since then, hopefully for the better. There are now a few FDA approved drugs on the market, and the internet is full of information, updates, guides and resources focussed on fibromyalgia, some helpful, but others mostly routine dross full of hypes. Further details on this can be found on the Fbromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome webpage.

Does it mean the fibromyalgia patient’s lot is improving, or that we are becoming more compassionate? I wouldn’t hold my breath! Besides, many patients seem to revert to the previous state after a  period of remission, becoming more disillusioned than before.

On the other hand, it’s not always altruistic motivation that can bring beneficial changes to the society as a whole. Self-aggrandizing, egoistic or profit motives can often spur real actions to improve the lot of others – sort of collateral philanthropy, if you will. We have seen this happening on the internet marketplace, with the proliferation of e-books, online courses and useful guides. Many fibromyalgia patients, who had previously tried but failed to find relief with  other treatment methods,  have found these  e-book guides and courses more positively responsive for alleviating their suffering.

Inspiration to Live is a  candid  unpretentious account of one woman’s painful  struggle and unraveling of the truth about fibromyalgia Symptoms & Cure hidden behind a fog of myth, misinformation and misdiagnosis, even hostility.

Perhaps more ambitious in its scope is Better Health Today, which deals with a wide range of diseases beyond fibromyalgia. An expert guide for healthcare professionals and families, and widely acclaimed as such.

Four Healing Programs offers a step by step program, an all natural method for Fibromyalgia and other ailments with a  trusted regimen of simple exercise, self-reliance, positive thinking and healthy living. A serendipitous find, this stands out from the crowd.

For many long-suffering fibromyalgia patients any of  the above could well be their link to serendipity – and sanity!

Van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway can’t all be wrong

They all drank, loved and drew creative inspirations from Absinthe, or Absinth, the fabled ‘king of spirits’ of successive generations of artists.

Probably a few, if any, other drink has ever captured the popular imagination and been featured in so many books,  plays, movies and legends. What started as the favorite drink of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, soon became the de facto muse of the likes of Picasso and Degas, and extended its sway over many other    celebrities  like Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Jarry et al, and including others like  Bob Dylan and Eminem of our time.

Inevitably with myth comes notoriety, and then abuse and over-indulgence as with many other alcoholic drinks, but with the additional psychoactive ingredient Thujone – a constituent of wormwood – considered unsafe and even poisonous, absinthe was blamed for madness, criminal behavior, epilepsy, blindness and many other real or imaginary problems. The backlash led to the ban of absinthe in many countries in Europe and beyond.

But that was long ago –  the days of superstitious pseudo-science and mass hysteria.
Times, common sense, government regulations and  business ethics have changed
since then. Absinthe is legal now in almost all countries. The main sources now are in Spain, Britain, France, and the Czech Republic notable for its ‘classic’ or more potent versions, known as the king of Spirits, or the “Hemingway absinthe”, “Van Gogh absinthe” etc. Some variations have very high levels of both alcohol and thujone, and prized by some connoisseurs, while some other experts, more out of snobbery and prejudice rather than true judgement, look down upon these ‘Bohemian-style’ products (strictly speaking Absinth not Absinthe!).

No matter whatever spelling you follow, absinthe is back in vogue. There’s even a small niche devoted to absinthe drinking rituals and paraphernalia like the correct absinthe glass or the right absinthe spoon to use. But deep down this “green fairy” in a bottle is still the iconic Bohemian – untamed, complex  and full of many surprises. Careful when you drink!

Ununseptium

Animal, vegetable or mineral? Actually it’s one of the latest elements to have been ‘discovered’, and definitely one of the heaviest so far.

Ununseptium is just a temporary name of the element with symbol Uus and atomic number, Z=117, with just about 6 atoms successfully synthesized and detected earlier this year, during a joint Russian American collaboration, which involved  a complex process of reaction between isotopes of Calcium and Berkelium, and the resultant synthesis of two neighboring isotopes neither of which decayed to isotopes of any known element. This was officially acknowledged after it was published  in the Physical Review Letters recently.

Don’t be alarmed if this sounds too nerdy. It’s all about recalling a few basic concepts from your college science classes; nothing nerdy about that.

The discovery fills a gap in the currently known  periodic table since the next element Ununoctium (z= 118) was created a few years ago; Ununseptium bolsters the hope of finding the so-called “island of stabliity” among super-heavy elements with half-lifes longer than a tiny fraction of a second, extending in fact to days, years or even longer to be useful.

In case you’re wondering, ununseptium is just a standard rendition of one-one-seven in Latin. To confuse us more – but in fact to enllghten us too – this new kid on the block of the Periodic Table is also called eko-astatine, because it was predicted – according to the system adopted from the originator of the periodic table, Dmitry Mendeleev by later scientists like Glenn Seaborg – to belong to the halogen family, and does indeed fill the blank spot  exactly one row below the naturally occurring but highly radioactive  halogen Astatine (‘eka’ is the Sanskrit word for one – geddit?)

If you are wondering about the reason for the subterfuge of this coded terminology, think of Ununbium , first created in 1996, but not officially recognized until 2009 with a proper name.  Copernicium – named after the great astronomer Copernicus of course – is so far the highest-numbered element (z=112) to have that distinction.
Go figure!

No End of a Lesson

On Saturday 24th April, Armenians in Yerevan marked the solemn commemoration of the 95th anniversary of the genocide that began under the Ottoman Turks in 1915, in which about 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

What’s unusual about the above paragraph? This was reported in most serious news outlets, but not all using exactly the same expression – because the present, and almost every recent, Turkish government proscribes the word genocide, and will punish its own citizens and strongly censure foreigners for even mentioning  the offending word. Yet, the Turkish authorities do not deny that more that a million Armenians died, but give different reasons other than government repression for what happened, and vehemently deny any  suggestion of possible “genocide”.  Isn’t that just another instance of state-sponsored  revisionism?

It seems ironical that in most European and many other countries, the so-called “Holocaust deniers” are condemned, yet in another country a generally acknowledged crime against humanity is officially denied and any attempt to re-establish the historical truth is stifled and denounced.

This presents another problem for President Obama, who issued a statement on that day commemorating the victims but omitting any mention of genocide. Of course, this is politics and diplomacy driven by pragmatism, and it’s  more
important to prioritize the more pressing reconciliation effort between Turkey and Armenia over some emotional issue of historicity. Also, in order to avoid alienating an important ally, the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to stop an earlier vote on a House Foreign Affairs Committee which voted narrowly to condemn the killings as an act of genocide. Yet, only two years ago Obama said that  “the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.” He also criticized the Bush administration for  recalling an ambassador who had dared to pronounce the word!

Is ‘compromise’ a convenient  euphemism for ‘broken promise’? Ask Obama, whose ideas and idealism  have repeatedly been compromised for the sake of fairness or pragmatism or whatever.  Sadly, he ended up alienating both sides which is not surprising. His clumsy attempts at compromise have been mentioned in earlier blog posts here, the most recent being on his kowtowing to the Chinese in an  attempt to placate them for his  White House meeting with the Dalai Lama. But the Chinese are still not pleased. Same  with health care reform; whatever happened to the public option?

Not surprisingly, the  present Obama compromise nonetheless provoked a sharp reaction from the Turkish foreign ministry who excoriated him for one-sided meddling with the Turkish-Armenian history for political motives.

Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson;  it will do us no end of good.
– Rudyard Kipling.

The Not-so-Christian Militia

To call the far right extremist group Hutaree a Christian militia would probably be a crass insult to Christianity and a grave injustice indeed. Even by the standards of so much toxicity permeating today’s political and social discourses, the necrotic pus of their ideological outpouring would seem to be way out and dangerously extreme. A fundamentalist patriot’s riposte to Al Qaeda?  A primer on how to out-taliban the Taliban?

Yet this is really nothing  new. The conspiracy theories have always devolved from some naïve apologists feeding on seemingly innocuous sound bites from late night TV enangelists and their ilk. People used to joke about these  fringe ideologues. In fact this was mentioned tangentially in an old blog post here last year, in  a rather funny and dismissive manner; but it’s definitely not funny any more.

So, the tea parties continue and the rage festers.  But who are these angry folks, the so-called ‘patriots’, the ‘christian’ soldiers?  Have you noticed many,  if any, African-American or Hispanic,   or native American,  Asian or anyone from a  similar background among their ranks?  Why are the truly dispossessed not enraged?
One wonders.